THE THINKING WOMAN’S GUIDE TO REAL MAGIC by Emily Croy Barker just came out yesterday, and Emily was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book. Also, we’ve got a copy up for grabs, so check out the details at the end of the post!
Emily, you’ve had a long career as a journalist, so writing is certainly in your blood, but what made you decide to take the plunge and write a novel?
This novel was really a labor of love. Writing it was like a mental vacation, my regular weekend getaway.
Looking back now, I do think that perhaps switching from reporting to editing—which I did when I came back to American Lawyer magazine after a couple of years of freelancing—might have helped motivate me to start writing fiction. I love to write, and when I don’t get to write for a while, I miss that outlet!
Will you tell us a bit about THE THINKING WOMAN’S GUIDE TO REAL MAGIC, and what inspired you to write it?
I sometimes describe it as Harry Potter meets Jane Eyre. It’s the story of an unhappy grad student in English literature who meets some new friends and goes through a sort of Cinderella transformation–except that her fairy godmother isn’t quite as beneficent as she seems. To survive in a strange new world, my heroine, Nora, convinces a powerful but ill-tempered magician, Aruendiel, to tutor her in magic.
The original inspiration was a daydream about a women who gets entrapped by magic, transformed into an idealized, Barbie doll version of herself. She doesn’t even realize that she is enchanted. And then I pictured someone–a tall, gawky, wild-haired man—telling her to get a grip, what you’re experiencing isn’t real, this is magic. He was a magician, that was obvious. Why was he helping her? I had to know more about these two characters. That daydream became the scene in the novel where Nora first meets Aruendiel.
What do you like best about your heroine, Nora, and why should we root for her?
What I like about Nora is that her mind never stops working. Her sense of humor is always alert; she always spots the incongruities or absurdities in the most fantastical or frightening situations. Well, maybe not when she is under the Faitoren enchantment—but it comes back quickly.
Also, Nora is a very kind person. There’s a lot of interest now in strong women characters, which is great, and of course you can be both strong and kind. But if you look at a lot of fairy tales, the characters who prevail are not necessarily the strongest or the bravest. Sometimes the guy who wins the princess is the youngest son who everyone thinks is an idiot, but he stops to share his crust of bread with the old lady who turns out to be the good witch who tells him where to find the enchanted sword, etc. One way to survive in a hostile world of magic and dragons and magicians is to make friends and allies, which is what Nora does. I think kindness can be underrated as a character trait in fantasy.
Did you do any particular research for the book?
Not a lot. I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for inspiration when I was trying to picture what tools or weapons or other artifacts in Aruendiel’s world might look like. When I went to Brittany on vacation a few years ago, I visited a couple of castles to get my imagination fired up. Likewise, in Maine, there’s a particular orchard that I would visit every summer so that I could pretend that I was walking through Aruendiel’s orchard. I read up a bit on post-Ice Age landscapes and I also referred to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary to help me get Aruendiel’s speech right.
I didn’t do any particular research on folklore or mythology, because it was easier to make magical characters like the Faitoren or the Kavareen or the ice demon come alive in my mind if I had total freedom to imagine them. And after all, this novel takes place in an entirely different world. If the Faitroen are fairies in our world, as Nora guesses, then they may behave a little differently here than they do in Aruendiel’s world.
What do you enjoy most about writing fantasy?
I love being able to really make things up! It’s intoxicating. Also, I do think fantasy is a really powerful way to explore real-life emotions, especially our darker emotions. It’s a safe space to think about things like death, loss, separation.
What, or who, are some of the biggest influences on your writing?
The worlds created by Neil Gaiman’s incredibly fertile imagination—which is so steeped in history and literature and mythology—are always inspiring to me. I love the way Kate Atkinson uses narrative voice, especially in her Jackson Brodie novels. Susanna Clarke’s quarrelsome magicians made me start thinking about what magic would be like as a profession. Tolstoy is amazing because nothing he describes is simple—the most fleeting scene is full of nuance and complicated life. (I’d like to think that my writing shows his influence, but he’s really more of an ideal that I have to keep striving for.) Henry James, because of course nothing was ever lost on him.
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
Ha! Good question. I remember once a woman came up to me on the street when she saw that I was carrying a copy of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale and asked if I were reading it for the first time. I said yes, and she said, “Oh! You’re SO LUCKY!” For me, that book would probably be Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I remember reading it and being so happy that the book was long—that it wasn’t going to end any time soon.
But honestly, I reread books all the time, and the best ones are still great on the second or third reading. Sometimes better. I got so much more out of The Portrait of a Lady when I read it at 43 than when I read it at 18.
What piece of advice would you give to struggling writers?
I started a novel in my 20s, and it was terrible. I didn’t go back to fiction until I was 39 and had something to say. It’s okay to lie fallow for a while.
What’s next for you?
Well, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I think that Nora and Aruendiel have some unfinished business. So I’m looking forward to spending more time with them.
About THE THINKING WOMAN’S GUIDE TO REAL MAGIC:
Nora Fischer’s dissertation is stalled and her boyfriend is about to marry another woman. During a miserable weekend at a friend’s wedding, Nora wanders off and walks through a portal into a different world where she’s transformed from a drab grad student into a stunning beauty. Before long, she has a set of glamorous new friends and her romance with gorgeous, masterful Raclin is heating up. It’s almost too good to be true.
Then the elegant veneer shatters. Nora’s new fantasy world turns darker, a fairy tale gone incredibly wrong. Making it here will take skills Nora never learned in graduate school. Her only real ally—and a reluctant one at that—is the magician Aruendiel, a grim, reclusive figure with a biting tongue and a shrouded past. And it will take her becoming Aruendiel’s student—and learning magic herself—to survive. When a passage home finally opens, Nora must weigh her “real life” against the dangerous power of love and magic.
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